Friday, December 3, 2010


Back In The USSR

This past weekend has been a real contrast. It started brilliantly with a trip to the motherland, Romania, and its capital (or crapital as I used to refer to it), Bucharest. The event was the Hospice Casa Sperantei, our Romanian sister organisation, 10th Anniversary Edelweiss Ball.

The bus to Bucharest was an overnighter, leaving 10.30pm from Chisinau and arriving at 7am in Bucharest. It wasn't too bad a trip actually and is preferable to the train as you don't have to wait 3 hours at the border to be airlifted onto the European train wheels from the Russian ones. Crossing the border from Moldova into the EU is just like it used to be crossing the border from Romania to Hungary 10 years ago. Granted, there are no guns or 4 hour delays but there is still a sense of excitement and change. When you arrive at the border, everyone is traipsed off the bus and put through passport control. So far, so normal. Like at most border patrols around Romania, there are fighting stray dogs, nonchalant guards and plenty folk just hanging about to watch what's going on. But then the bus is boarded by the guards dressed like those in the Elton John 'Nikita' video and they can be pretty scary when asking the Moldovans why they are going to Romania, how long they are staying for and if they have an invitation letter. Indeed, two passengers who were sitting either side of me were dragged away for interrogation and only one of them reappeared. Then one of the aforementioned scrapping dogs (which I then noticed was a police alsatian with a POLITIA jacket on) bounds around the bus sniffing for who knows what and then does the same to our bags (and in the process nabs a woman's sandwich much to our delight). I'd really like to have taken photos at this point but security prohibits it and after realising that the girl sitting next to me wasn't coming back, I knew they meant business and kept my camera in my bag.

After 90 minutes of standing in the freezing cold passing through two borders, we were on our way to Bucharest and I slept pretty much all the way there. Arriving in the country's capital you come to realise that it's a bit of a dump. At the peak of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's power, he destroyed a lot of the city's old buildings and turned them into apartment blocks. The city which was previously referred to as 'The Paris of the East' was completely renovated to make it seem like a rich and prosperous city. Ceausescu decided to build a river through the centre, and amongst other things, built this, the second largest building in the world, Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament:

While it's an eyesore, and most Romanians I know hate it and what it symbolises, you cannot fail to be awestruck whenever you see it. It really is impressive and prior to my visit this weekend, would have been the only thing I would recommend as a must-see in the city.

I arrived at the venue of the ball, the Athenee Palace Hilton at around 7.30am, after being suitably conned by a local taxi driver, and checked in (the team at Casa Sperantei had VERY kindly booked me in to one of their complimentary rooms). The theme of the ball was Around The World and man, the team did a spectacular job. More on that in a bit.....

The hotel was situated on Revolution Square where the Bucharest part of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 kicked off. I had watched the video of when the crowds started booing Ceausescu all those years ago (and the look on his face when he realises that they are not cheering his address - at 2:40 - is priceless - see here) which signalled the start of the revolution and I got to see where it all started.

The building is now the host to some government ministries but there is a monument to remember the people who lost their lives during the revolution where those crowds once stood.

Shortly afterwards, the Ceausescus had to escape by helicopter and eventually were executed on Christmas Day 1989 but it was a real experience to see where it all began. A sobering experience for sure and a stark reminder of what could happen in Moldova should the Communists get back in after Sunday's shocking election, the third in the last two years. The Communist party received 39% of the vote while the 3 democratic parties (who have formed a coalition) managed 52% between them which equates to 59 seats, just short of the 61 seats needed to elect the President and overcome Communist resistance to a more Russian-influenced state. Many people are worried here that the Communists could steal some of the coalition to have a majority and if this happens, there could be a repeat of last year's riots where the Parliament and Presidential buildings were both ransacked by young protesters (see here). Most young people here are worried and have vowed to leave the country if the government turns its back to the west and looks back to the old Soviet Days.

Back to the ball, which kicked off around 7pm. As I said, the theme was 'Around The World' and we were treated to some amazing table decorations for each of the 18 tables which represented a different country.

The top table, Scotland of course

The Italian table

The China table (my favourite)

The Dutch table

Japan's table

It's Brazil (my table)

South Africa

Romania's table (the grandest, of course)

England shows off its table

We were hard-pushed to guess this one. No, it's not a squirrel or a beaver, it's a kangaroo. I give you the Australia table

Another favourite of mine, the New Zealand table

The table from the USA

The Canadian maple leaf

A sombrero represents Mexico

The French table
There were a few other tables, including a German one represented by a steiner but I didn't manage to get photos of that. Highlights of the night included an incredible auction where some great prizes were auctioned off including:
  • Your chance to star in a children's book to be published in 2011
  • To have your child walk out with the captains at the Liverpool V Steaua Bucharest match this week
  • A weekend in Edinburgh
  • A weekend at the not-even-opened-yet Waldorf hotel just outside London
  • A VIP weekend to the Budapest Grand Prix with money-can't-buy-tickets at the start and finish line
The auction raised about 70k Euros for the hospice work in Romania, a great result. Full of ambassadors, celebrities, rich folk, royalty and Ethan Hawke's mum, it really was a fantastic night culminating in their new promotional film about hospice work which has a very special soundtrack from a very BIG rock band who have given the hospice permission to use one of their most well-known tunes as the backdrop. Sadly, I'm not allowed to disclose who the band is yet as things are not finalised, but man, what a result. A huge congratulations to the Bucharest /  Brasov team who managed to pull it all together and make it seem so easy. I'm slightly nervous now at having to organise a similar event in the Spring.

But as usual, there was a major McKellar celebrity embarrassing moment. Romanian actor, Dragos Bucur, who was in a brilliant Romanian film called the Death of Mr Lazarescu and is in the new Colin Farrell movie out next month, was there and I was determined to get my photo taken with him. So I tracked him down and congratulated him on his work and asked about Mr Farrell. He said he hadn't been in a movie with Colin Farrell and was actually a guy called Dragos Bucurenci, a famous Romanian journalist, charity supporter and former contestant on Romania's version of Strictly Come Dancing. I apologised profusely, smiled in a mortified manner and quickly made my exit. What a tube. Anyway, here's the pic.

So I left Bucharest with a changed opinion and somewhere I want to go back to again to explore more. For all you Londoners, you can get really cheap flights from Luton with Wizz Air, so let me know if you fancy a long weekend and I'll see you there. Back to Chisinau on Sunday on the minibus (made all the more boring by me standing on my headphones thus having no music) and I got home to a bit of snow in Moldova. It's by no means shut down the country like it has done in the UK but finally, winter has arrived in Moldova and it's bloody freezing.

1 comment:

  1. It wouldn't be a good night out with some kind of embarrassment! Love the blog Johnny - and glad to see you are trying to educate us... Of course there are some of us who are a lost cause.. ;o)